Losing a day out of time

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The Independent Online
On Saturday I fell into conversation with a man who has not missed a Derby at Epsom since before Neville Chamberlain flew into nearby Croydon promising peace in his time. Mahmoud in '36? "Saw it," he said.

Memory recaptured for him the sight of a vast, heaving crowd on the Downs, bumper-to-bumper traffic, thousands flooding from the railway station at Tattenham Corner. "The congestion was so bad when Mill Reef won in 1971 that his trainer, Ian Balding, almost didn't get here in time," he said.

A changing world. The sweetest sight at Epsom on Saturday was a little girl kicking a ball around with her father within sight of the winning post. If golf's longest hitter, John Daly, had unleashed a drive from the top of the hill it wouldn't have reached the proletariat. "I'm under-employed," the minder who stood guard on the door of a half-empty pub, said. "You need a pass to get in here, but I don't know why." Less than an hour after the last race a neighbouring beer tent was almost deserted. "Serves 'em right," somebody said. "They were charging three quid a pint."

Truth is that the Derby as a traditional day out for the masses has passed into history. Even the top-hat brigade - "My dear, I wouldn't know one end of a horse from another," - have diminished in numbers. For the first time some of London's most famous clubs cancelled their coach bookings.

The initiative of United Racecourses and its managing director, Edward Gillespie, to stage the Derby on a Saturday for only the sixth time in more than two centuries of running brought no significant improvement. As for grudging concessions to egalitarianism, who are they kidding? Unless you were attired formally, lifts in the Queen's Stand were off limits. "Sorry, but that's the rule," an official grunted while waving through a chattering group of poseurs. The climb to a viewing position on the roof might have daunted Chris Bonnington.

Moving the Derby to Saturday ignores an aspect of working philosophy that helped to make it one of the great occasions in sport. Stealing a day off from employers, benevolent or otherwise, was central to the experience. Using up free time is another matter.

None of this can detract from the drama that began to unfold when Walter Swinburn brought Lammtarra into position two furlongs out. Even then supporters of the Maktoum family's chestnut colt were inclined to think that he might have been left with too much to do in the closing stages. But suddenly the green-and-white colours of Lammtarra's 19-year- old owner, Saeed Maktoum al Maktoum, began to catch every eye. Running for daylight, Lammtarra hurtled to the front to justify Swinburn's pre- race warning: "Ignore him at your peril."

More than an hour after his third Derby victory, Swinburn made for home to have dinner with his parents. The tumult had died down but he was still gripped by an emotional experience, memories of his friend and Lammtarra's original trainer, Alex Scott, who died from gunshot wounds last autumn. He had said it many times before but now, hair still damp from the shower, eyes glistening, he said it again. "I was close to Alex," he said, "and the whole Newmarket community was devastated when he died. He was convinced that he had a Derby winner and I hope this gave him a great deal of satisfaction."

On the occasion of a memorial service for Scott, a Newmarket breeder took Swinburn to one side. "Go and win the Derby for Alex," he said. Recalling that moment, Swinburn smiled. Then he ducked beneath a rope and departed the scene of his triumph.